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Smoltz prepares for 21st season in unconventional way
Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz throws a pitch during a spring training workout in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. While the rest of his Atlanta Braves teammates play spring training games, the right-hander prepares for his 21st season in the obscurity of the back fields. - photo by The Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — John Smoltz is throwing out another changeup — and we’re not talking about a new pitch, either.

While his teammates are playing spring training games, the ageless right-hander is going about the business of preparing for his 21st season on the back fields of the Atlanta Braves’ complex, an obscure place usually left to the minor leaguers.

There are no cheering fans, no curious reporters. Just Smoltz and a few hitters who tag along, standing at the plate while he goes through a lengthy checklist of simulated situations.

"It just gives me the best opportunity to work on the things I really need to work on that are going to have to be different this year for me to be able to pitch like I want to pitch," he explained. "I need to follow a game plan that typically you just can’t follow when a spring training game comes around."

He goes to the back fields every fifth day, just like he’s heading out for a start. But he does it with no fielders backing him up, just a complex man alone with his thoughts, convinced that he knows better than anyone what he needs to do with his 41st birthday approaching and four elbow surgeries in the rearview mirror.

"At this point, it probably looks like I’m being selfish. Maybe I am," he said, before quickly adding, "but only from the standpoint of what’s going to end up being better for the team."

Smoltz already has changed more than a chameleon in his long, accomplished career, which includes the 1996 NL Cy Young Award and standing as the only pitcher in baseball history to reach 200 wins and 150 saves.

Early on, Smoltz broke ranks as one of the first players to work extensively with a sports psychologist, seeking to learn more about what made him tick on the inside.

After a dozen years as a starter, he agreed to shift to the bullpen, going along with the Braves’ contention that fewer innings would cut down the strain on his troublesome elbow. Then, having put in three full years as one of the game’s top closers, he made the unprecedented move back to the rotation in his late 30s, having decided that working every fifth day was actually the best antidote against further injuries.

Smoltz hasn’t missed a beat through all the twists and turns, going 44-24 in his second incarnation as a starter. As the lone member of the 200-150 club, he seems to be drumming up plenty of sentiment that — even with all the injuries, including one full season missed, and just a single 20-win season on his resume — he’s a guy deserving of being in Cooperstown some day.

It’s quite a change for Smoltz, who was seen for many years as someone who never quite fulfilled his enormous potential. Still, he can’t seem to shake those previous criticisms from his mind, using them as the me-against-the-world stick that continually stirs his ultra-competitive psyche.

"If I told some of the things I deal with, nobody would believe it," Smoltz said. "There’s a lot of things going on. I’m in a Catch-22. People assume everything I’m doing is only making it harder than it is. But they have no clue."

The Braves had no objection to Smoltz working for nearly a month out of the public eye. He won’t pitch in an actual spring game until late March, with the idea of getting in two starts — one covering five innings, one six — before he heads north to pitch in games that count in the standings.

"John’s always got a plan, which is good," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "We’ve learned to listen to him."

Smoltz said he’s partly motivated by the problems he struggled through last season, which began when he dislocated his right pinky finger in a rundown. He tried to pitch through the injury, fully aware the Braves had no reliable starters beyond himself and Tim Hudson, but wound up hurting his shoulder and landing on the disabled list for the ninth time.

"I really wasn’t the same the rest of the season," he said. "I pitched good, but I wasn’t the same after that. It bothered me, because all I had to do was take a start or two off and I could have been better served."

Smoltz also was struggling to cope with a divorce, especially missing the time normally spent with his four children.

"My faith was the only thing that allowed me to get through last year," he said. "There were a lot of things trying to creep into my head. I’m glad I didn’t give in to them."

With all that swirling around him, Smoltz still put up another banner season. He went 14-8 with a 3.11 ERA, worked more than 200 innings for the third year in a row, and averaged 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings — his highest mark as a starter since 1998.

But he’s never content, which is why he’s tweaking himself again on those back fields.

"I’m working on a curveball," Smoltz revealed. "I’m working on pitches that I can throw five times in a row that I’ve never thrown five times in a row. I’m doing any situation I want. If I don’t like the way I pitch to one hitter, I’ll get them back in there and do it again. I can’t do that in a game."

Through the course of a half-hour conversation at Smoltz’s locker, another motivating factor seems to creep into the equation.

He’s spent much of his career alongside two of the game’s greatest pitchers, 300-game winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Neither of them ever had overpowering stuff, but both knew how to work the plate and keep hitters off balance. Smoltz craves the same sort of acknowledgment, feeling his pitching acumen got overlooked because he had a fastball in the 90s and a nasty slider.

"I’m finally getting some credit for being a pitcher," he said. "Well, I’ve been a pitcher for a long time."

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